Early October games rarely carry the consequences of Saturday’s matchup between the University of Wisconsin and Nebraska, set for a 7 p.m. kickoff at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
The Badgers opened Big Ten play last week by defeating Northwestern, the team some thought before the season had the best chance of dethroning UW as West division champions. Iowa, another top challenger for a December trip to Indianapolis, fell to 0-2 in conference games after losing at Michigan State on Saturday.
Now, the Badgers (4-0, 1-0) and Cornhuskers (3-2, 2-0) stand as the only two Big Ten West teams with an undefeated conference record. While well more than half the season remains, a victory Saturday would put either team in the drivers’ seat to win the division.
“Whenever you face an undefeated team in the West, getting that victory is kind of like getting two games,” UW outside linebacker Garret Dooley said. “Not only do they have a loss, but you also have the head-to-head win, so I think it’s definitely a big thing to get that ‘W.’"
Despite the undefeated mark in conference play, Nebraska hasn’t performed to expectations this season. The Cornhuskers narrowly avoided a disastrous loss to Arkansas State to open the season before losing two straight against Oregon and Northern Illinois. Their two Big Ten wins came against Rutgers and Illinois, teams expected to finish near the bottom of the conference standings.
Nebraska even fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst on Sept. 21 following the loss to NIU.
Traveling to Lincoln for a 7 p.m. kickoff Saturday likely won’t come without a challenge, though. The Cornhuskers have won their last 20 night games at Memorial Stadium, including a 2012 victory over the Badgers, and own a 46-5 all-time record in night games in Lincoln.
"Nebraska’s going to be one of the hardest places to play in the entire nation,” Dooley said. "They’re filled up half an hour before the game even starts. They sell out every single game. Everyone knows that."
Defeating Nebraska on Saturday would allow UW to still win the Big Ten West with a loss to either Iowa or Michigan, arguably the two toughest opponents remaining on its schedule.
However, Badgers coach Paul Chryst doesn’t necessarily want his team to look that far ahead. He views Saturday as a massive game regardless of the conference standings.
“It’s a huge game and always knew it would be,” Chryst said. “None of what’s happened before or what happens later, none of it matters. It’s all about focusing on this week. It’s a talented team and a well-coached team. … But none of that peripheral stuff matters. This game stands on its own."
Part of the game’s importance also stems from the newly created rivalry between the teams. The Freedom Trophy was introduced in 2014, and UW has won three memorable games in the series since then.
First, it was Melvin Gordon’s 408-yard performance at Camp Randall Stadium. The two matchups since were about as close as they come. Badgers kicker Rafael Gaglianone hit a game-winning field goal with four seconds remaining in a 23-21 victory at Memorial Stadium in 2015 before UW outlasted the Cornhuskers in overtime last season.
“It’s not like it’s a real long history with Nebraska, but the games I’ve played in have been nail-biters,” UW left tackle Michael Deiter said. "Really even-matched, just physical games. … I think you remember that going and playing this year. You’re going to get their best. It could be 60 minutes-plus.
“Things aren’t going to go your way verse Nebraska. They’ll have the momentum, we’ll have the momentum. But it’s come down to, in the last few minutes in the game, who’s going to execute just a little better. That’s something we have to be prepared to do in every game in the Big Ten, really, but especially against Nebraska."